When Oxford University Press asked for New Jersey artist Gwenn Seemel’s 2017 portrait of Donald Trump, The Light of the Right (Donald Trump as a Tiki Torch) for Lawerance R. Jacob’s deep dive into the American political system, Democracy on Fire: Donald Trump and the Breaking of American History, she was pleasantly surprised.
Soon after The Light of the Right (Donald Trump as a Tiki Torch) landed with Jacob, Seemel was asked to paint portraits by her friend Erica Smiley. This was for the cover of Smiley’s upcoming non-fiction, co-authored by Sarita Gupta, The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Unlike Democracy on Fire, Seemel was very involved with the interview subjects of Smiley’s book.
Suddenly, Seemel’s portraits wrapped the covers of two unreleased books outlining the future of American politics and labor.
“The Democracy on Fire was a total surprise just in my email inbox. Oxford University Press was looking for a cover for the book and had somehow discovered the painting,” Seemel said. “I don’t know a lot about publishing, but I imagine teams are involved in finding images. So, I never got an answer for why it was me, but I was sure happy that the piece was picked.”
The Lambertville artist has been portraying people since she was a child, sometimes to mock them, like with the high school teachers she mercilessly caricatured; other times to uplift them, as with the residents she volunteered to care for as a teen at a retirement home. Today, these opposing forces in her work are on display in a high-profile way.
The nonfiction book outlines the historical forces behind Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as how the American two-party system grows more and more polarized, with more extreme candidates, and increasing racial inequality.
Jacob said Seemel’s portrait of the former president is a “fiery painting [that] powerfully conveys my book.”
Smiley and Gupta’s The Future We Need is still political, but the tone of the art is entirely different. Seemel gives faces to the workers whose stories appear in the text. Gupta and Smiley outline the modern labor movement by integrating the stories of working people and how the power of collective bargaining influences a stable democracy for a working America.
Gwenn’s portraits were important to the book since workers, specifically working women, aren’t usually portrayed in portrait paintings; it’s usually the wealthy that are painted. There is justice and history that culminate within a portrait, something that opens non-fiction with fierce empathy.
“[Furthermore], they are not anonymous strangers,” Smiley said. “Gwenn’s paintings remind us that the people sharing their stories and opinions on movement strategy are human beings that could be our aunts, sisters, neighbors. That really mattered to us when putting together this compilation of strategies for the labor movement.”
Balancing the powerful extremes of portraiture is part of what Seemel does best, having spent nearly 20 years as a professional artist making political imagery. She did this while supporting herself primarily through the creation of custom portraits. Painting her way to her vision of a better world and also getting paid is not an easy needle to thread, but most days Seemel enjoys the challenge.